To help reduce isolation during the pandemic, Alzheimer’s Society launched Companion Calls to keep people affected by dementia connected. We hear from three Companion Call volunteers who share their experiences and enthusiasm for the service.
People affected by dementia have been hardest hit by coronavirus. More than one in four (27.5%) people who died with COVID-19 from March 2020 to June 2020 had dementia. But not only that, the effects of social isolation have been severe for those who survived.
Alzheimer’s Society’s report Worst hit: dementia during coronavirus, published in September 2020, found that:
- 56% of people with dementia living alone felt more lonely over lockdown
- 23% of people with dementia living with others felt more lonely over lockdown
- 45% of people living with dementia said lockdown has had a ‘negative impact’ on their mental health.
A full-time family carer at home can easily become isolated: friends may avoid them, and they can become so focussed on the person they are caring for they neglect other interests. Sadly, people with dementia may become isolated too as people avoid the difficulties of communication.
Why companion calls?
In a caring society where access is not a problem, there are individuals and organisations that make up for this shortfall. In the UK today this support is not always available. Understandably many families affected by dementia are nervous to spend time out of the house due to the risk of infection and visits to relatives in care homes have been strictly controlled with little apparent concern for the potential damage caused by isolation.
Alzheimer’s Society created a Companion Calls service, where volunteers call a person for a regular chat to see how they are doing and talk about day-to-day things. This service is still a lifeline for many people affected by dementia. Volunteers are needed more now than before.
I became a volunteer for Alzheimer’s Society because I wanted to give something back. They supported me when my Mam’s dementia became worse.
‘Initially, I kept in touch with people through our regular Dementia Connect service. Then we started Companion Calls to respond to the pandemic, and I had training to become a Companion Calls volunteer.’
I speak weekly with a number of carers and people with dementia, checking they are well and seeing if they have any concerns.
If they’re a carer and struggling, I’d refer this to my role manager at the Society to see how they can get extra support. I often talk about the importance of carers looking after themselves too.
If I am speaking to the person with dementia, I see if they are OK, worried or frightened, warm or cold, or whether they have eaten that day or have someone bringing them food (some of them live alone and not all have carers coming in).
I speak to them about what they like to watch on TV, what they like to do.
I share any concerns with my role manager, so we can make sure the person involved gets any other support that they need. I have monthly Zoom calls with my manager. She often drops me an email checking if I am OK, and regularly gives me feedback on how I am doing with my callers.
Giving people a friendly call has been vital during the pandemic, when people have been so isolated. During a 10-minute call you may have spoken to someone who maybe does not speak to a person all day. Some do not see anyone all week and do not go out.
If you’ve ever wanted to make a difference and have an hour or two to spare each week, I’d recommend becoming a Companion Calls volunteer – you’d be surprised by how rewarded you will feel!
I'm a Research Network volunteer and area coordinator for the East Midlands. I applied to the role in April 2021 and after being accepted and going through the induction process, was allocated a small group of people to contact.
The first calls were hard work as I am not a natural conversationalist, however, my experience as the primary carer for my wife had given me two areas of insight.
I could imagine the situation of the people I was contacting and I had the patience to listen.
Over a few calls I built up a mental picture of them.
One person with young onset dementia had difficulty finding words that with a little help we could tease out. Another person whose partner was 'locked' in a care home, has a wealth of past experiences that came bubbling out with little encouragement from me.
Another person’s partner died in 2020 and who has a diagnosis, recognises me as soon as lifting the phone, opens the conversation and holds it for the rest of the session. And a fourth person has stories of time in the army from which I get a realistic tale each time I call.
I can picture these isolated characters from my time as both a beneficiary of Memory Cafés and most recently as a group support volunteer until the role was put on hold due to the pandemic.
I now look forward to the calls and generally spend about half an hour with each companion.
I decided to become a Companion Call volunteer because I wanted to help people. I had time available in the pandemic and it works around my life and doesn't require too much effort. After all, I spend quite a bit of time on my phone, so why not do something positive with that time?
Connections through stories
What I enjoy most is the connection with the people I call. You can tell it means so much to them and I love hearing all their stories! I enjoy chatting to them as much as they enjoy me calling.
I think it's a wonderful service overall helping so many people in need. There's great training and always support from my role manager whenever I need it and communication from various sources about what's going on etc.
It's a service you can be part of and helps those who need it no matter what is going on in the world!
Pandemic schmandemic. The Society adapted instead of disappearing or grinding to a halt and now helps more people than ever. It's incredible!
I really hope more people will keep signing up to be a Companion Caller like me so we can help everyone that needs it and bring a bit of sunshine to their lives!